I first made friends with her in 1958. She and I were at primary school together, and then at secondary school, and although we grew apart and have led very different lives, we have remained in touch, and have lunch together every six months or so. And last time we had lunch together, we agreed that where our primary school had fallen down was in teaching mathematics. We were very badly taught. “And,” said my friend, who remembers everything, “We were told to ask if we didn't understand, but if we asked, we were told we hadn't been listening properly!” And it wasn't until I started to try to teach my daughter the rudiments of numbers that I discovered that, despite a quite good maths O level, I was fundamentally innumerate, and hadn't much idea of how numbers worked.
But the point is, when we were told off for asking, despite how often we were told to ask, we became afraid to ask. And in our Gospel reading today, we see Jesus teaching his disciples, privately, away from the crowds. And they, too, reacted with fear, and were afraid to ask him what he meant. We then see them fighting among themselves, and, finally, learning something of what it means to be first.
So first of all, Jesus tries to tell his disciples about his forthcoming death and resurrection, but apparently the didn't understand and were afraid to ask. Afraid to ask? I wonder why they were afraid. Do you suppose they thought Jesus might be annoyed with them for asking?
I don't think he would have been. I think if the disciples had said, “Look here, what are you talking about?” he would have tried to explain more clearly. And this might have avoided some unpleasant misunderstandings, like when Peter says, “No, no, I won't let that happen!” which was so totally not what Jesus wanted or needed to hear at that moment that it felt as though the evil one was tempting him.
So why do you think they were afraid to ask? I wonder if it wasn't that they were afraid of appearing total pillocks in front of the others. Everybody was thinking, “Well, I don't know what he's on about, but everybody else obviously does, so I'm not going to be the one to make a fool of myself by asking!” I have a feeling we may all have been there and done that at times – I know I have! You really don't know what the other person is talking about, but you don't like to ask for fear of appearing an idiot.
I don't know where that particular fear comes from – it may be down to early experiences at school, like mine in the maths class. If you ask, you are told off for not having listened properly; if you don't ask, you are assumed to have understood even if you hadn't. And when nobody else asks for clarification, you think you must be the only one who didn't understand!
But in a way, this is a form of pride, isn't it? We are too proud to ask; we're afraid of looking silly in front of other people.
So the disciples reacted with fear, and then they started fighting among themselves, arguing about who was the greatest. Well, we know that Jesus was very unimpressed by this, and so, of course, it's not something we ever do.
Are you sure?
The thing is, we might not argue about who is the greatest, as we know that's not what Christianity is all about, so what we then do is pride ourselves on how humble we are, what good Christians we are, how we don't ever put ourselves forwards.... Or maybe we boast about our children. Some years ago, you may remember, there was that excellent comedy sketch series called “Goodness Gracious Me”, with Meera Syal and Sanjeev Bhaskar – you know, the famous “Going for an English” sketch. But that wasn't the one I'm remembering here, but the two mothers who keep making ludicrously exaggerated claims about how well their sons are doing. Competitive mothering – or competitive grandmothering – is very definitely a thing! I even find myself doing it with my own daughter: “Well, of course, dear, you were potty-trained before you were two!”
And we have probably all met the sort of Christian who just mentions in passing that they are fasting for Syria, or have donated twenty toothbrushes and six blankets to the collection point in Venn Street – do it, please do do it, but don't talk about it! Or so Jesus said. He pointed out, do you remember, that the people who made a great show of being holy, or of giving alms, already had their reward. “But your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you openly!”
It's all about pride. Again. In fact, this whole passage is about pride. It was pride which kept the disciples from asking Jesus what on earth he was talking about. And it was pride that caused them to argue and fight about who was the greatest – and you will notice that they didn't answer when Jesus asked them what they had been talking about! But he knew. And he began to teach them what it meant to be first.
This, then, was Jesus' teaching about being first and greatest. Again, this doesn't seem to say much to us – we know all this, don't we? We've heard these teachings since we were in Sunday School. Of course we try to be last of all and servant of all. We're the ones you find arguing in the kitchen that of course we'll do all the washing up, all by ourselves, and then we'll sweep the floor and everybody else should go home.... and if people take us up on it, we grumble loudly that we're the only person who every does anything around here, and go around in a delightful glow of martyrish self-pity.
It's pride, all the way. C. S. Lewis said that pride was the central sin of humankind, and that the prouder we are, the more we dislike pride in others. I quote: “In fact, if you want to find out how proud you are the easiest way is to ask yourself, 'How much do I dislike it when other people snub me, or refuse to take any notice of me, or shove their oar in, or patronise me, or show off?' The point is that each person's pride is in competition with every one else's pride. It is because I wanted to be the big noise at the party that I am so annoyed at someone else being the big noise.”
And Lewis goes on to point out that it is pride that comes between us and God: “In God you come up against something which is in every respect immeasurably superior to yourself. Unless you know God as that – and, therefore, know yourself as nothing in comparison – you do not know God at all. As long as you are proud you cannot know God. A proud man is always looking down on things and people: and, of course, as long as you are looking down, you cannot see something that is above you.”
St James, in our first reading, said something very similar: “But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind.” And he goes on in that vein: “And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures.”
Again, pride. It seems to be at the root of all human evil. The disciples were too proud to ask Jesus what he was talking about. They claimed to have been afraid to ask, but it was probably a fear born of pride. Then they started bickering about who was the greatest, like small children. And then Jesus taught them that they must be the servant of all, and welcome small children in His name. But that, too, so easily goes wrong and becomes a matter of pride.
So what can we do about it? I suppose the first thing is to admit it, to confess it, if you like. But it's the most difficult sin to confess, because it's the one we are most unaware of. And if we do become aware of it, we start being proud of that awareness. You remember Jesus' story of the pharisee and the tax collector, how the Pharisee spent his prayer-time thanking God for how much better he was than other people, and especially than that tax-collector? Well, I read a story about a Sunday-school teacher who taught that story to her class, and said, “Now, children, let us thank God that we are not like that Pharisee!”. Which was all very well until I found myself thanking God that I was not like that Sunday-School teacher....
And it was, we are told, the tax-collector, who contented himself with praying: “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner!” who went away right with God.
Pride is a horrible vice, and I am inclined to agree with Lewis that it is the antithesis of Christianity. It is often the basis of all other vices. Of course we can, must, and should rejoice in our achievements – but having succeeded in whatever it was we set out to do doesn't make us a great person!
We are all sinners, saved by grace. And that is the thing, isn't it – saved by grace! No matter how proud we are, no matter how much we secretly – or openly – want to be the greatest, no matter how much we dislike looking foolish, the moment we turn to God, the moment we stop looking at ourselves and start to look at God, in that moment we are forgiven. And with God's help, and only with God's help, we can overcome our pride. It's not a matter of behaviour – it never is. It's about allowing God to change us, to re-create us, to help us grow into the person we were designed to be. After all, as Aslan said to one of the Kings of Narnia, being human “is both honour enough to erect the head of the poorest beggar, and shame enough to bow the head of the greatest emperor on earth.” Amen.